Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Comments from a Panel Discussion on Improvised Music

[I couldn’t attend any of the concerts in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival, but I did manage to go to the panel discussion on Saturday afternoon (the 12th). Gust Burns, John Teske, and Steve Peters were there, among others; but since I didn’t get everyone’s name and didn’t actually ask permission to quote anyone on this blog, these comments will be paraphrased and anonymous. I’m putting them here only because I found them interesting. I won’t identify people – only a < when a different person speaks.]

< There is a concert series (of improvised and other experimental music) called “Opensound” in Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s been running for many years now, and has become something of a cultural institution. They try to have 4 sets a night, 20 to 30 minutes each, which are as different as possible from each other.

< When artists move into an area, including sound artists, then others follow. Art isn’t commercially viable at first, but it becomes so as more people move in and the area becomes trendy.
< So how does it feel being part of the gentrification of a city?
[Resounding groan from others.]

< One of my ideas to make experimental music more “popular” (without changing it) is to open a place, say, a coffee shop, that has a room off to the side for concert performances.
< Except if you have an espresso machine…
< Well, the side room would be soundproofed. I read part of a book called “Fear of Music; why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen” which had a lot of elaborate theories in it about why music like Stockhausen isn’t more popular. I thought most of the theories were simply masking the fact that people don’t “get” Stockhausen because people haven’t heard Stockhausen.
< That’s overly optimistic.
< Well, performing experimental music where people could hear it is one way to let them hear it and make up their own minds. The recording industry doesn’t let people think for themselves. A concert space in a coffee shop would be one way to do it.
< Actually I’ve heard Stockhausen a lot and I still don’t get it.
< I didn’t mean only Stockhausen, of course.
< There’s a long history of places like that, which run a side business that is sustainable in order to do the real business which is not sustainable. However, the problem is legal: there are lots of laws one has to take into consideration. If you do concerts in a coffee shop, for example, you need not only a food license but also a “cabaret” license, which costs a lot more. Besides, I don’t want to force my taste in music on others; those who like a certain type of music will seek it out.

< There was an installation where the composer put several hundred bees in a grand piano and closed the lid. Their buzzing caused the strings to vibrate sympathetically.
< What happened to the bees?
[Bemused expression from first speaker; no comment.]
< Poor bees…

< In the US., it’s easy to rent a room to perform your music. In Australia it’s difficult; it’s a cultural thing; they’d assume that you’re renting a room to do something illegal.
< It’s difficult in Vienna too, only for a different reason. I once played a series of concerts in a jazz club, though nobody came. I found out later that there were a lot of people who wanted to hear me play but would never set foot in a jazz club, while the people who went to the jazz club to hear jazz didn’t like my music and made sure others avoided going the nights when I was playing.

< I used to do conventional “classical” music, but I got too busy with family and career to keep doing it. I wrote a lot of manuscripts that piled up, and were never performed. It was kind of a hobby. Then one day, a well-known composer asked me to a concert of some of his music. I heard an amazing, a wonderful piece, that was exactly like the kind of music that I’d been writing. Later the composer told me that that particular piece had been improvised; it had never occurred to me that one can improvise “noise” music the same way one can improvise jazz or pop.

< I once heard that there was a 7-11 near a university, that had trouble with teenagers loitering outside. The managers of the 7-11 tried playing classical music over their loudspeakers, but it didn’t drive the teenagers away.
< They must have liked Mozart.
< The 7-11 tried country music too, but again with no result. But one time the grad students at the university asked if they could broadcast their experimental electronic music over the loudspeakers, as a kind of sound installation, for a week. They weren’t thinking about the teenagers, but that week was the only time when none of them hung out there.
[I don’t know where this was. Could be true, but it could also be an urban legend; it sounds like the kind of story that would circulate among musicians. I've heard other versions of it anyway: one, that the classical music did make them stop loitering there; and another, that it was Barry Manilow tunes that finally drove them away.]

< I like the idea of “risk” in music. I like to put myself out there, to do something that I haven’t done before, and am not sure that I really know how to do. I like to face the danger of failing. I remember that in the 1990’s a lot of experimental music was based on Feldman, Stiebler, and others who were doing very quiet, barely audible sounds. I decided that, in addition to that, I’d play with some established “free jazz” players, a very loud, strident kind of music. Some other experimental musicians asked me, “Why are you playing with them?” My answer: because I’m not supposed to. But also, there is a limit. Once I worked with a composer, who was interested that I could play the theremin, and he wanted me to use specific sounds in his piece. So much so good, except that at one point he asked me to do a “classic theremin sci-fi wooooo-eeeeeee-oooooo”. I told him absolutely not.
< I suppose that’s rather like asking a guitarist to play “Stairway to Heaven”.
< Worse.

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